Famke Janssen plays Olivia Godfrey in this scene from the Netflix original series "Hemlock Grove."
Even stars can be star-struck.
While discussing the new Netflix streaming series at a hotel bar in January, young actors Bill Skarsgard and Landon Liboiron became momentarily distracted when actor Giancarlo Esposito walked by.
“I just saw the bad guy from Breaking Bad,” Skarsgard said mid-interview. “The chicken guy. I’m so excited. He walked past and it’s just so funny it took me two seconds to realize. He’s an actor, obviously, but he’s dressed the same way.”
“Good posture,” Liboiron said.
It’s the kind of reaction any actor hopes to achieve: Create a character so memorable that even fellow actors are in awe in your presence. Whether any of the cast in Hemlock Grove can manage something similar remains to be seen, but it’s clear that Netflix’s streaming series aspires to achieve the same appreciation accorded to quality dramas such as Breaking Bad.
Netflix debuted the streaming series House of Cards to generally positive reviews in February, and on May 26 the online service brings back a new, 15-episode season of the late Fox drama Arrested Development. In between there’s Hemlock Grove, which debuts today.
This 13-episode Gothic-horror series is based on a 2012 novel of the same name by Brian McGreevy. He and writing partner Lee Shipman wrote many of the “Hemlock” episodes, including the pilot, which was directed by Eli Roth (“Hostel”).
The show is set in Hemlock Grove, a former steel town outside Pittsburgh, where the Godfrey family has made its fortune over several decades. High-schooler Roman Godfrey (Skarsgard) often spars with his imperious mother, Olivia (Famke Janssen, “Nip/Tuck”), who is having an affair with her dead husband’s brother, Norman (Dougray Scott). Gypsy teen Peter Rumancek (Liboiron) moves into Hemlock Grove at the same time 17-year-old Brooke Bluebell is murdered, raising suspicions. Eventually Roman and Peter form a friendship and begin a search for the killer. Oh, and werewolves and vampires may also come into play.
‘’Hemlock” had been slated to film in Western Pennsylvania, something McGreevy advocated for the show’s production company, Gaumont International Television. A production office was even opened briefly in Pittsburgh last spring but the production pulled out in May 2012 due to what Gaumont chief operating officer Richard Frankie called “a timing issue” but what Pittsburgh Film Office director Dawn Keezer called a lack of understanding on the part of Gaumont management about how the Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit program works.
At the time, McGreevy said he was “heartbroken” by the turn of events that led the series to relocate to Toronto. But he did manage to get Pittsburgh into the show by sending a crew to Western Pennsylvania over several weekends last October.
‘’We shot a lot of second unit (in Pittsburgh) because it was impossible to do the show without incorporating the Pittsburgh topography,” McGreevy said.
At a January Netflix press conference, “Hemlock” executive producer Mark Verheiden, who was previously a writer/producer on “Battlestar Galactica,” ‘’Heroes” and “Falling Skies,” said filming in Toronto worked out.
‘’Toronto is a great location, has a wonderful steel-town sort of feel to it,” he said. “We originally were thinking of shooting elsewhere but ended up in Toronto, and I think it ended up being a good thing for the show because beyond the steel town, there’s this wild variety of great locations.”
Hamilton, southwest of Toronto, played the more industrial, downtrodden parts of Hemlock Grove, while Port Perry, northeast of Toronto, was cast as the town’s more bucolic main street.
McGreevy said Netflix was an ideal home for “Hemlock Grove” because it doesn’t force the same restrictions on programs regarding sexuality or language as a broadcast or cable network. But Netflix also offers another kind of freedom: format.
‘’We don’t have to have commercial breaks. There are no time limits,” Verheiden said. “And in terms of language and standards, they’re more liberal than they were on Syfy channel.”
Veheiden said “Hemlock Grove” also benefited from having a book it was based on.
‘’We knew for the show where we wanted to go from the minute we sat down to start breaking the stories,” he said. “That’s kind of novel for television to actually have your beginning, middle and end when you start out.”
Landon Liboiron plays Peter Rumancek, a werewolf, in this scene from the Netflix original series "Hemlock Grove."
Shipman said the TV series expands on the world created in the book, devoting more time to characters that had minor roles in the novel, including two played by “Battlestar” veterans. (Actor Aaron Douglas plays the town sheriff and actress Kandyse McClure plays an animal behaviorist.) Most aspects of the plot will track with the book with some deviations.
For at least one cast member, there were concerns the part she was offered in “Hemlock” would not deviate enough from a past role. Janssen worried that Olivia Godfrey might be too similar to her previous TV role as controlling Ava on FX’s “Nip/Tuck.”
‘’I thought I could be in territory where I could possibly repeat myself because there was something about this highly manipulative character who’s also really put together that I felt was going in the direction of Ava,” she said. “So I made sure to speak with a different accent in this show, kind of a mid-Atlantic accent, the way a woman in a 1930s movie spoke with an affectation. It’s not quite British, but not fully American. It’s written in the book that she was an actress, and that’s where I found the character, when I found that voice.”
Janssen was sold on the part when she read the pilot script and came to a scene where Olivia wants to take Roman shopping. He doesn’t want to go, so she puts her cigarette out on his jacket, burning a hole in it and forcing him to abide by her will.
‘’I thought, that is a character I want to play,” she said. “I wanted it to have that kind of feel and humor to it. Ultimately, I would have liked to have seen more humor in it because it’s something I so love to do. ... It was so twisted and a unique way she goes about getting what she wants.”
For the young leads of “Hemlock,” filming the series offered new experiences. For Skarsgard, it was the Swedish actor’s first film project in America. He’s the son of actor Stellan Skarsgard and brother of “True Blood” star Alexander Skarsgard (aka Eric Northman). For Liboiron, who starred last year in Fox’s “TerraNova,” ‘’Hemlock” offered an opportunity to be in a more character-driven story that still has its share of special effects.
‘’The difference between ‘TerraNova’ and ‘Hemlock Grove’ is ‘TerraNova’ had more running-away-from-things-that-were-not-there kind of acting,” Liboiron said. “Our show isn’t about that. Peter and Norman are chasing the thing themselves. And the CGI wasn’t as prominent on this show as on ‘TerraNova’ because it’s more about what the characters are going through. They’re such aberrants by nature and on the outside looking in to what’s normal in society.”
Despite the show’s supernatural elements, producers say it’s ultimately about more grounded themes, including friendship and perverse family drama.
‘’When it comes to doing a genre story, if you want to do something of quality, it’s really form follows function,” McGreevy said. “It’s not, ‘I want to do a sci-fi story or a horror story.’ It’s ‘I want this story that’s dictated by these characters making these decisions.’ “
Although producers pitched Netflix on multiple seasons of “Hemlock Grove,” McGreevy has not started writing a sequel to the book that could form the basis of a second season.
‘’It turns out producing a TV series takes an overwhelming amount of your time,” he said. “So at this point we’re just putting one foot in front of the other.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow TV writer Rob Owen on Twitter or Facebook under RobOwenTV. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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